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Montreal voices: Tumbling down the family tree


by Follow Bridges

Suspended Bridges
December, 2006

My name is Bridges. I was born and raised in Montreal, and grew up in a bilingual family, settled in a bilingual town situated in a unilingual province which is part of a bilingual country. This, my friend, makes me somewhat of a schizoid person. Hopefully you won't hold it against me if I start not making sense; I never know which side of my divided identity will manifest itself first. I have spent my life immersed in language, reading, writing, translating back and forth to and fro French to English, and vice-versa. I am a professional translator and a writer; although I translate mostly financial documents for international companies and do not overly stimulate creativity in people who read me in my mother tongue, my stories about Sophie in "Le Passeur" are quite popular in French-speaking Quebec. I am thirty-four years old and a single mother of two wonderfully bright children: my daughter Rose who is 10 years old and my son Justin who is 5. I have been separated from their father for 4 years now, leaving me plenty of time to settle in single mode, single-motherhood mode and independent single woman-of-the-world mode. Not bad for a woman who spends all of her time bi-thinking all the time, wouldn't you say? But let me start over and introduce myself properly by telling you the story behind my name. Quite an unusual name, I'm afraid. Oh, and bear with me, please. I'm reminiscing from what both my parents told me over the years intertwined with my own fantasies about my origins, and you know how that can become confusing as time passes on.

When I was born in may of 1972, my mother, a tough cookie French-Canadian woman if there ever was one, after pushing me out of her uterus for 3 hours following twenty hours of painful, very painful labour (I will always, always remember my mother favourite saying about giving birth : Bridges! Accoucher c'est comme se faire sortir une dinde par les narines! Souviens-toi de ça avant de penser à te transformer en mère! (1) which took place in St-Michel hospital's nursery, took one look at me and said "UN BEAU GARÇON!!!!!!" and smiled contented as she semi-passed out on the table. "Madeleine! Look closer!" dad responded. Mum opened one eye and said to a proud father "Aaaahhh.C't'une..une..grrrrlll." and passed out for good that time. She would wake up fifteen hours later asking her husband how her son was. Needless to say my father had to set her straight once again, holding me naked in her face until she faced the truth: her son was in fact a daughter, she finally got into her head she had given birth to a girl, and not a boy. Mum later told me that the drugs they gave her at the time were pretty strong (Well, OBVIOUSLY mother), plus, she was exhausted from all that pain and emotional stress. During the time she was pregnant with me, she was convinced she was carrying a boy, and spoke to the life inside her (the life was ME! I should have kicked her in the ribs o set her straight) as if she knew what she was doing and whom she was carrying. So from her point of view, she had a good excuse of gender-confusing my unconscious. I'm guessing it must have been quite a shock to her, but my dad was ecstatic; while mum wanted to produce a son, my dad had secretly hoped for a daughter. At least one of them was happy! Thirty-four years later, I would tell my therapist that my inner confusion was due to my mother imposing a symbolic phallus on me from the moment she first laid her eyes on me. After a good night's sleep and slowly coming to terms with the reality of my sex, my mother decided to name me Brigitte. Brigitte Lafleur, Montreal-born daughter of a Quebecois homemaker and a British insurance salesman, that sounds pretty respectable, right? Well my mum thought so, but my father had to mess it up in his own little way. He didn't agree on my mother's suggestion; he thought it was too French-Canadian for his daughter. All of a sudden, he was having patriotic Union-Jack flashbacks! My mother, being the stubborn Quebecois woman that she still is, was ready for a fight, now that she had gained her senses back. Their dispute was about whether to name me in accordance to my haul-ass French-Canadian heritage from my mother's side, God bless her sweet matriarchal house-wife soul, or to revive my British origins from my snobby father by giving me a proper English name. WHAT?? Yes, I hear you, I know. A British father? How can your surname be French, then? Well, join me as I tumble down my family tree so you can better understand the messed-up cultural identity crisis I was going to go through again, thirty-plus years later.

My grandfather, on my father's side, was French. I mean, French, from France, as in beret-baguette-Eiffel tower French. Now apparently, granddad had stopped speaking French after he had immigrated to England at the tender age of 19. But I'm getting ahead of myself. You see, while he travelled from France to England in 1947, apparently to help one of his cousins rebuild a farm that had been half destroyed during the war, (I think he was desperately looking for an excuse to leave France; as my dad told me about his father, he had lost his brothers during the war and his parents were now just ghosts of themselves, and he just couldn't bear to see his mother cry anymore, making England and the farm salvaging seem very appealing) Granddad fell in love with a sweet and innocent-looking thirty something pub waitress who, as the story goes, still according to my dad's own memories of his parents, was still a virgin at her age. (Why on earth would granddad tell such information to his son I don't have the slightest idea. Why he passed it on to me is even weirder-but do go on) Now, the war had pretty much wiped out a whole generation of Englishmen at that time, and being the shy English girl that she was in her little village, she almost never spoke to the clients, who were mostly grumpy old married men anyway. Until she met my grandfather, that is - don't forget we're going on recollections of an old man down two generations here - she had spent most of her life pouring pints of lager and serving bangers, mash and fish& chips in silence until her eyes met those of a young and sweet-looking French man who had come through the door of her little village pub, where she had been tending the same expanding beer guts for so many years. Violins were playing, the earth stood still and everyone disappeared but them, and all that romantic nonsense. You know the drill. Love was in the lager-scented air, or so it seemed.

Now as my father told me, it was love at first inability to communicate verbally sight, because granddad had just got there and spoke dodgy English at the time, and of course, grand mum knew nothing about the French, except that she never thought they could be so cute. Apparently, in between granddad putting up fences and milking cows for his cousin and grand mum serving pints to old geysers, they had time to get acquainted and prance around in the fields surrounding Surrey village, I think it was called, and managed to lovingly conceive a bastard child somewhere in the tall grass one summer day. That child would later become my beloved bastard father, but don't tell him I said that. Still with me? Now my grandfather, being the romantic idealist that he was at nineteen, still according to my dad who had made a hero figure of his father, married his mum out of true love, or so the story goes, and tried to take her back with him to France to his family, hoping to give them something to smile about. Much to his unexpected dismay, when they finally got there, his parents were traumatisés (2) when they saw this obviously pregnant and much, much older British woman walk through the door of their deserted French cottage. "Mon bébé! Mon bébé a fait un bébé! Une anglaise! Sainte-Marie mère de Dieu! Une abomination!" My father had told me many times about this part of his family romance, turning it to a comedic farce every time. You should see his face when he imitates his grandmother, as though the pain of being shunned from your own family by your own mother was inspiration for vaudeville; but the laughs he got from the family helped dedramatize his father's personal drama and turn it into a family inside joke that had been passed on for two generations now. But the grand-mère and grand-père I never got to meet were right up to a point: I have seen the pictures, and he did look just like a bébé. A baby with manly balls nonetheless, because at that point in the story, (now this is the part where my father really enjoys playing his grandma's role; very dramatic, eyebrows frowned, high-pitch voice, French accent and everything, probably loving every minute of talking down to his own dad through his poor acting) he stood up to his infuriated parents, who had begun to transfer their anger on poor and confused grandma (my grandmum this time, but you were not confused, right?) She started to cry, with reason, not only because she couldn't make out what they were saying, even though she could quite easily guess what all the drama was about. Young granddad had never seen his bride cry ever, (You should hear the protective tone my father uses to personify his own dad) and had just spent the most wonderful three months of his life, learning a new language, shagging in the fields and making a woman he loved smile; he was happy and ready to fight for it, no matter the cost. Now it was at that point that grandma started to cry and cry like she had never done before; the pregnancy hormones were probably not helping. I guess she was expecting a bit of resistance to start with, and how hard is it to decode the language of screaming French anyway? Hate and rage is pretty much universal, wouldn't you say? Apparently, my granddad's mum started to throw plates and saucers at poor pregnant and confused grandma, breaking whatever she could get her hands on in the cottage kitchen, when his dad joined the party by starting to point a finger at him, blaming him for destroying the family. Quelle horreur! The drama! The French screams! The English sobs! There was no way granddad could deal with the woman he loved, carrying a child that was conceived in love crying or that finger of shame pointed at him for that matter. All this misery was not his fault, he was fighting for life, love and everything that was good, and he was only nineteen! Ah, my grand father. what a romantic character. Gotta love him.

Twenty minutes after they had arrived in France, dad & pregnant soon-to-be-wife were heading back to England with their unpacked things and left France for good in a hurry, dodging the saucers and plates along the way, escaping from the motherly screams and the fatherly blame, leaving the hurt my granddad had lived with for too long already at the tender age of 19. They settled in that oh-so-quiet British village, where they had met, young fools in love (I'm guessing they had wed, since my British grandma was now named "Lafleur") and baby to come, and never, ever went back to or even thought of going back to France, nor my granddad ever spoke a word of French again. My dad told me his father vowed in English to his wife never to make her cry again, or so the story my almost bastard father told me goes. Isn't that a great family story?

Now, my own father, the one I was just telling you about - the bastard, that's right - was born as a legitimate Lafleur in 1948 England, and never heard a word of French in his village life, not even from his own father in times of upsets. Granddad had kept his promise. Dad only learned to speak French when he met my Quebecois mother thirty-some years ago in Montreal, whilst traveling to discover the new world. At 22, in 1967, he wanted to see the world, and since he was lazy, those are his words, not mine, he had said to me, poking fun at himself, that Montreal seemed a good idea at the time since it was going to host the "Man and his world, Expo 67" world exposition for 6 months that year. He was hoping of finding a job over there, or at least get a little idea of what the world had to offer without having to go around it, as he told me. He met my mother at the hot-dog stand in front of the Great-Britain pavilion; she was looking for frites and he was looking for chips, then violins suddenly started playing, the earth stood still and everyone disappeared but them, and all that romantic nonsense all over again. Love was in the international greasy spoon scented air this time, and the rest is family history. There is more to my parent's love story, but be patient. I shall tell you that one a little later. I like it, it's romantic, and I want to save it for dessert. You'll like this one.

But Brigitte? What's with Bridges?

Oh, I'm sorry, almost forgot. Well, after my parents had agreed on "Brigitte", then my father convinced my mother they should spell it B-R-I-D-G-E-T, like St. Bridget, patron of charity and justice, or something like that. My dad thought it would be nice to have and English name with a French surname, the whole romantic idea of having a child embody the symbol of two countries and two languages coming together in harmony in one little tiny body and so forth...Anyway dad convinced mum, and she wanted to please her man, so, there I was, baby Bridget, daughter of the Canadian ideal, francophone meets Anglophone in one person. As my father was explaining the reason for the spelling of his daughter's name to the hospital employee filing out the official birth form, he must have been going on and on about Canadian history and the British and French empires, building bridges between countries and cultures and so on and so forth. He must have bored the clerk silly with his unbridled enthusiasm and impacted this person's unconscious, because when they finally got home a few days later, my official birth certificate read "Bridges S. Lafleur, fille de Marie Madeleine Dugas et de Leonard Andrew Lafleur".

My parents agreed that fate had decided it was a much more appropriate name for me and never had it changed. Baby Bridges had a name cut right out for her.

1. Giving birth is like pushing a turkey through your nose, Bridges; remember that before you start thinking of becoming a mother yourself! 2. Traumatized.

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